‘The refusal of time’ is worth every minute

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

The former Rissei Elementary School site, nowadays an occasional cultural events center, was earlier home to the Kyoto Dento, the electric company whose technology helped industrialist Katsutaro Inabata to demonstrate the Lumière Brothers’ cinématographe camera in 1897 — Japan’s first experience with film. Significant as a historical spot for the beginning of cinema in Japan, the venue now inaugurates the build up to the 2015 “Parasophia: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture” with the Asia premiere of William Kentridge’s “The Refusal of Time” (2012).

Kentridge has an illustrious recent history with the city, giving lectures at Doshisha University in 2008, holding a solo exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, in 2009, and being awarded the 2010 Kyoto Prize in Art and Philosophy — sometimes called the Japanese Nobel Prize for the humanities.

“The Refusal of Time” began to formulate when Kentridge was invited by the Paris institution Laboratoire to undertake a project in consultation with a scientist. He started communicating with Peter Galison, an American historian of science, and the two exchanged stories. One by Galison concerned a 1905 paper by Einstein on the delay in telegraph signals between train stations synchronized to a central clock, hypothesizing the supposed relativity of time.

Another resulted in the “breathing machine,” or “elephant” as the artist calls it, which takes over the central exhibition space and is surrounded by projected imagery. Galison told Kentridge about a late 19th-century Paris pneumatic system of tubes below the capital’s streets that would “pump time” through regular intervals of air to keep the city’s clocks synchronized. For Kentridge, the idea conjured up Charles Dickens’ 1854 novel “Hard Times,” which described a monotonously moving machine “like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”

Both stories, ostensibly, were about time and different historical times, and their resistance to absolute control. There are discerned creeds of times here — minutes, hours, time zones, hygienic time, pneumatic time, eternity, even simply being in time or out of it.

The 30-minute projection is also about Kentridge’s desire to relieve the pressure placed upon us in the face of our own mortality, the politics of a Eurocentric vision of ordering the colonial world by timing and regimentation, and his long-held concerns about the racial politics of apartheid in his native South Africa. Black and white divisions are all too obvious to ignore given the projections themselves are monochrome — a collaged figure made from newspaper dances onscreen, and Kentridge himself, the frequent actor-instigator-commentator within his own filmic worlds, wears a white shirt with black trousers.

The deluge of visual, verbal, aural and conceptual references that characteristically informs Kentridge’s works are twofold. The first is hypnotically intoxicating, such as the opening scene with nine metronomes all ticking to different speeds, over which are layered the sounds of string instruments, tubas and voice; and the closing scene in which a rhythmical procession of shadowy imagery conjures up thoughts of slavery, displacement, funerals and festivals. The second is almost cacophonous and harassing (note there are megaphone speakers), but to what end is difficult to say. What might time tell?

“William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time — Parasophia: Prelude Exhibition” at the Auditorium, former Rissei Elementary School runs till March 16; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. ¥500. Closed Wed. www.parasophia.jp/events/en/a/william-kentridge